Monday, April 7, 2014

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches by Matsuo Basho

I love Japanese Haiku and ordered this book thinking I was getting a collection of Haiku.  While there is no shortage of Haiku in the book, it is actually a travelogue that Matsuo Basho recorded through his companion secretary, Sora,  about his travels across Japan on a spiritual journey.

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is considered the greatest of the Japanese haiku poets.  Zen Buddhism was a leading influence in the school of poetry he founded. According to the back of the book, these travel sketches are his bid to "discover a vision of eternity in nature and the ephemeral world about him."

Basho's poetry is beautiful.  The imagery of nature it creates evokes a sense of peace.  His elegant writing enables the reader to vicariously experience his observations as he wanders through forests, up mountains, visiting Buddhist shrines and friends.

Stretching by force
The wrinkles of my coat, 
I started out on a walk
To a snow-viewing party.

Deep as the snow is, 
let me go as far as I can
Till I stumble and fall, 
Viewing the white land scape.

I am a visual person and it's hard for me to imagine what people write or say.  That is probably why I enjoy stories with character studies or that explore ideas with minimal descriptions.  The people in the books I read always are faceless.  That makes it all the more remarkable that Basho's writing communicates clear pictures in my head of what he himself saw and experienced.

Searching for the scent 
Of the early plum, 
I found it by the eaves
Of a proud storehouse.

Poems composed in a field: 

Dyed a gay colour
My trousers will be 
By the bush-clovers
In full bloom.

In mid-autumn
Horses are left to graze
Till they fall replete
In the flowering grass.

Bush clovers, 
Be kind enough to take in 
This pack of mountain dogs
At least for a night.

I have studied Buddhism, but my fiance, Joshua,  explored Buddhism before becoming a Christian.  I was curious about what attracted him first to Buddhism and how he later came to embrace Christianity. 

For Josh, Buddhism touched upon the truth that the world is  transitory and the desires of the world an illusion.

But when rockets were flying over his head in Afghanistan, Josh realized that Buddhism did not provide the answers looming death demands.  He came to the conclusion that Christianity provides answers not only to the meaning of life, but hope after death.

How Buddhism stands in stark contrast to Christianity struck me when reading two incidents recorded in Basho's book.  Towards the end of the book Basho attends a shrine before embarking on his return journey. There he meets two prostitutes.  They are also trying to find their way home.  Each night they sleep with different men in order to pay for their journey. The two women approach Basho and beg him to let them follow him.  With tears in their eyes they say to him:

If you are a priest as your black robe tells us, have mercy on us and help us to learn the great love of our Savior.

After a moment's thought Basho replies to them:

I am greatly touched by your words, but we have so many places to stop at on the way that we cannot help you.

After he leaves them, he thinks of a haiku and has Sora write it down.

Under the same roof
We all slept together,
Concubines and I-
Bush-clovers and the moon.

But the incident that upsets me every time I think about it is one on which he writes at the very beginning of his journey.  He comes across a small child, standing by himself on the road, crying.  He has been abandoned by his parents.  The wailing of this child moves Basho to share some of his food with him.  But he walks away, saying to the child, your cries must reach heaven.  Only heaven can hear you. 

And on he continues with his journey, leaving the child alone on the road. 

I know that Buddhism requires emotionally detaching oneself to this world, but I can only view such indifference to a helpless child's desperation as cold-heartedness on the lowest reptilian level.

It renders all his beautiful words and exquisite imagery hollow.  He enjoys nature and ponders eternity, but refuses to offer hope or assistance to desperate women or an abandoned child?
It calls to mind the final judgement in the last verses in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter  25:

43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”  (From BibleGateway, ESV)

I hope to collect more books on haiku.  I can enjoy the poetry even if I can't accept the religion behind it.

Portrait of Matsuo Basho from the Osaka Museum


  1. Very thoughtful commentary Sharon.

    These are indeed great verses.

    Your point is well taken. I am not of believer but have studied a bit about belief systems. In terms of my personal moral system, I find great incongruities with most religious texts, written theology, etc. . What you point out above would be an example of that. I generally do not find such conflicts with my beliefs and Christianity. By Christianity I specifically mean the Gospels.

    1. Hi Brian, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      In this case, Buddhism is not being incongruous. Following Buddhism to it's logical end, one cannot care about others or he or she is still attached to this world. Therefore, in order to avoid personal suffering one has to emotionally detach oneself from others' suffering as well.

      I personally find this belief system heartless.

    2. I just meant that many these belief systems have aspects that were incongruous with my morality.

    3. Oh, I see. I misunderstood you. I find Buddhism to contradictory to my own beliefs as well.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.